Shortcut to Happiness

January 14, 2014

I’m currently reading The Happy City by Charles Montgomery about how we can make ourselves happier (and greener and healthier) by redesigning our cities. It ticks all sorts of boxes for me: from a cameo appearance by Enrique Penalosa on a bike to plenty of love for the sort of mixed human-scale urbanism so eloquently championed by Jane Jacobs, as well as putting into words some of the things I find a bit disturbing about visiting Colorado, however bright and glorious the winter weather.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, but one thing did stand out in the chapter on what makes humans happy. One of the key ingredients of happiness, apparently, is the feeling that you can trust the people around you and happiness researchers measure it by asking people what they think the likelihood is that their wallet would be returned to them by a stranger if they dropped it where they lived.

Now, as it happens, most people massively underestimate the chances of getting their wallet back – what the question really measures, indirectly, is how well they know their neighbours and how often they interact positively with the people around them. Improving people’s happiness, therefore, includes basically re-engineering the way we live so that we can have lots of friendly interactions with other people, which means doing things like getting rid of sprawl, shortening commutes, creating green spaces in cities and rolling back the dominance of the car – all brilliant and worthwhile things but a) a bit long term and b) unlikely when you have a government whose transport policy consists of building dual carriageways between every town in Scotland and then when they are finished with that possibly thinking about some cycle paths (I really wish I was making this up).

Obviously, I will continue to campaign for such a re-imagining of our cities and towns but fortunately there is a shortcut for those of us wishing to be happy in our lifetimes – you can be me, and just leave your wallet and other assorted valuables in a trail behind you wherever you go, and discover first hand the honesty of the people around you. It’s a slightly high-risk strategy, perhaps, but imagine your surprise and delight at getting a letter in the post informing you that your wallet which disappeared on the train on the way to the US over Christmas, has turned up in a lost property depot in Huddersfield. This means I shall soon be reunited with not just my (by now cancelled – I’m optimistic, not completely naive) bank cards, but my driver’s licence (I think I have a use for it; it will come to me eventually…), WWT membership card, Advanced Open Water diver’s qualification (may come in handy if it keeps raining) and, most important of all, every library card I’ve ever been issued… 


Extinguishing the Candle at One End

November 29, 2013

As alert readers may have noticed, I’ve been a bit busy recently. Not just all the gadding about of the last few weeks, but at some point in the preceding months I have managed to go from doing occasional welcome freelance jobs to being somehow employed more or less full time. Adding in all the various cycling stuff I do – and my writing, which is technically supposed to be my day job – then I was left with very little time to do all the things we moved up here in order to be able to do.

So I have decided, if I can, to rebalance my life a little, at least over December. My resolve has been strengthened by the fact that I’ve come back from That London and its plentiful and germ-filled public transport with some sort of lurgy (having compounded my error by staying in a house with school-age children – I’m surprised that the other half didn’t institute some sort of a quarantine arrangement on my return). Occasionally you have to listen to what your body is telling you, even if it is doing so through the medium of pain and snot. I still have a few more commitments to get through (like running a pop-up bookshop today, as you do, and oh look I’ve got something on every evening next week) but then I’m going to be strict about clearing the decks and concentrating on what really matters. Like blogging.

So stand by for more updates about the important stuff in life. Like getting the garden ready for winter, going for long walks, curling up in front of the fire, and – of course – updating you on the level of the ford.


It’s Rare…

October 28, 2013

…that we get to listen to news of the weather gods wreaking havoc over the south of England while we sit securely in Scotland suffering not much more than some heavy showers interspersed with autumn sunshine.

sunshine in peat bog

We had friends visiting from London this weekend which has meant two-and-a-half days of chatting, cooking, eating, drinking, sitting by the fire playing silly games (Bananagrams – the gateway drug to Scrabble – followed by Texas Hold’em with the contents of the penny jar), not spending any time on the internet, and above all going out for long walks in unsuitable weather.* I found the walking surprisingly hard going; I’ve become a bit lazy and just cycle everywhere these days. We had a few culinary adventures as well, from a huge cauliflower fungus found in the woods to my less-than-huge sole surviving celeriac (hastily christened Cedric).

celeriac and beetroot

Cedric the Celeriac awaits his fate

Our friends left this lunchtime to find out whether anything remains of southern England after the storm. They have stocked up with plentiful supplies of Criffel, so should society have broken down altogether under the pressure of power cuts, train breakdowns and Waitroses being closed for up to a week, they should be able to hole up somewhere safe and repel any attackers with the smell

rainbow

Am I the only person who sees a rainbow as less God’s promise to the world, and more the Weather Gods’ reminder that they’ll be back …

Meanwhile we will batten down the hatches and await whatever punishment the fates have in store for us for being sarky about the storm.

*I’ll hold my hands up right now and and admit that visiting the local peat bog might have been a mistake. Still, it taught the youngest of a party a valuable lesson about how wellies don’t do much to keep your feet dry when you’re in up to your knees.


Ten Signs you May have been Living in the Country too Long…

September 21, 2013
  1. You think it’s acceptable to wear a fleece indoors
  2. You think it’s acceptable to wear a fleece outdoors
  3. If a tree falls in a forest, you think ‘I wonder if anyone would mind if I just took some of the wood?’
  4. You talk to people at bus stops, even in London
  5. You are horribly offended if other road users don’t acknowledge your greeting
  6. You recognise your neighbours from their cars
  7. You also recognise their sheep
  8. You no longer worry about other people’s sheep
  9. You don’t throw or give things away, you just store them in a shed in case they come in handy later
  10. You can no longer imagine living with just the one shed.

Ye gods, it really has been over five years…


Through the Eyes of a Child

September 14, 2013

It’s quite easy to be optimistic about the future of cycling in the UK when you visit London. In the five years I’ve been away (was it something I said?) cycling has become visibly more popular – and when you take to a bike, even in the suburbs, there are pockets of surprisingly, well, not unpleasant places to cycle. It’s not that things are good, exactly, but it feels as if things are at least heading in the right direction. If you pick your areas carefully (Camden, mostly) the bike seems to have been considered at almost every junction, to the point where you become quite indignant to find a one-way sign that doesn’t have ‘except cycles’ underneath it (and you realise you have crossed the border into Islington).

And then you make the mistake of taking your nine-year-old niece out for a bit of a practice cycle on a quiet Sunday morning, in preparation for the school run. It’s not that she can’t cycle to school already – she does, occasionally, when my sister can take the time to accompany her and her sister on foot. She even does it more or less independently – being much faster than her little sister, she tends to ride on ahead, crossing the side roads on her own, and waiting for another parent to come along before tackle the crossing at the big roundabout. And she is only able to do this because she cycles on the pavement.

Which is illegal. Even if you’re nine – hell, even if you’re four – it’s illegal to cycle on the footpath. It’s just that, until you’re ten, you can’t be prosecuted for it, just as you can’t be prosecuted for stealing cars, or shoplifting (technically, as she’s a regular offender, she could be taken into care, especially as her mother blatantly encourages her in this criminal behaviour). Now it’s obviously pretty unlikely that anyone is going to arrest her – but her tenth birthday is looming, and I thought I’d see what the practicalities of her actually cycling legally to school might be.

So off we went. It’s Sunday, it’s quiet but there are still a few cars about. We start on their street, which is one way and has parked cars on either side leaving exactly a car width of space between them and by cycling behind her I can prevent any moron from overtaking us. We sort of manage that, then reach the High Street, which is clearly impossible – lorries, buses, cars nipping into parking spaces, people crossing, multiple lanes of traffic. There’s no way she’s cycling in that so she gets back on the pavement. On we go to a mini roundabout and turn up what ought to be a quiet residential street but is in fact a through route as well, so there’s a mixture of parked cars and impatient drivers, along with traffic islands every 30 yards or so forming nice pinch points. I try and visualise explaining to her how to take the lane in front of an impatient 4×4 which is racing to overtake her before it gets to the next traffic island and send her back onto the pavement before someone rings social services. We continue until we get to a stretch without any parking and we try the road again which is fine until the double yellows end and there’s no way she’s going to pull out to get round the parked car while there’s a car behind us. Why would she? Everything she’s learned in her short life up to now is that if you see a car coming you stop and get back onto the pavement. I don’t want to put her off riding a bike so I send her back onto the foot path, and that’s where she stays for the rest of the ride. In the mile and a half between her school and her house, there’s no more than 100 yards that seem suitable for a child on a bike, however confident. And there’s not one single concession anywhere on that route for bikes. Nothing, except the pavement itself, and the tolerance of the local residents for children cycling on them instead of on the road

This is ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s not as if cycling to school is some sort of deviant behaviour we can’t actually ban, but we don’t want to do anything to encourage. We want children to be active, we bemoan the fact that they’re not, we complain about the congestion caused by the school run, we run special events to encourage kids to cycle to school. And yet the only thing we do make that actually possible on 90% of our roads is to turn a blind eye to ‘criminal’ behaviour. Oh, and training. For yes, my niece will soon be doing the bikeability training which will teach her that she shouldn’t ride on the pavement but should take the lane out there with the 4x4s, looking out for doors flying open as she passes the parked cars, holding her own at the pinch points, and negotiating a roundabout among buses and HGVs. Have we, as a society, gone completely insane?

After our ride, I asked my niece if she’d enjoyed it, and she had – that and the ride to school the next morning. She liked having someone who could ride alongside her, a bit of company, someone to chat to, rather than forging along on her own, with her mum trailing behind on foot with her sister. ‘Haven’t you any friends who could cycle with you?’ I asked. ‘Well there’s only X’, she said. ‘And she’s an only child, so her parents would never let her.’

Of course not. Why would you let something as precious as your only child out there to cycle in an environment that is completely indifferent to their needs? Where the only thing that guarantees their safety is the alertness of the child – and of every single driver they encounter? Why would you let any child? There can be no cycling revolution in London or anywhere else until the roads are fit not just for ‘cyclists’ but for children. And once we have achieved that, then cycling will be for everyone. And for all the changes you might see in central London, it’s not just that we’re not there yet – we’ve not even started. In fact we’re still arguing about whether we should make the journey at all.

There is another way


AWOL

September 13, 2013

Well, apologies for the radio silence, which is mainly due to my unfortunate habit of joining multiple cycle campaigns at once which has resulted in some extreme gadding about these past few days which not only meant I didn’t have time to blog (for the first time since blogging began) but also that I got kicked out of ukelele school before I’d even had a chance to attend my first lesson (which was part of the problem, to be fair). So to fill you in briefly, I have won an award, hence the trip down to London, and barely had I recovered from that excitement than I had to return to help run Bigtown’s first ever Bike Breakfast which was a roaring success but meant getting up at 5am yesterday and I’ve only really just caught up with myself now. I have also lost my anti-buzzard hat somewhere in London which – as it’s also my anti-rain hat – is a bit of a blow. Especially as our hoped-for Indian summer is turning out to be more of the monsoon variety, if monsoons delivered endless smirring rain.

More later, when I have wrung myself out.


To Infinity (or Enfield) and Beyond…

September 7, 2013

Well, I made it. In fact it wasn’t even that scary apart from the bit where I realised I was cycling along Green Lanes by mistake – but fortunately traffic was gridlocked enough that the only way I was likely to hurt myself was by hitting an unwary pedestrian. The main problem was my hopeless navigational skills. I had checked out a reasonable route on Cycle Streets (not the one that went up Highgate West Hill, thank you very much) and attempted to memorise it but the quiet route by definition took you down a patchwork of back streets and cut throughs which made it a bit difficult.

It started off fine – not only did I get to go up the famous Royal College Street upon which so much digital ink has been spilt – but Camden had helpfully included some directional signs which I only lost track of once. Royal College Street itself was certainly very pleasant to ride on; whether or not it’s Dutch or Danish, I couldn’t possibly comment but its main problem is that it’s just the one street. From there I rode along another segregated contraflow path which would have been lovely had it not had some road works in the middle of it and a traffic light at the end of it that refused to respond to my presence – I waited two full cycles of the light to be sure and then got off and proceeded as a pedestrian (I would like it noted that no red lights were run in the making of this blog, at least not by me – you’ll have to talk to the car drivers that shot through on ‘orange’ for at least a minute after the lights have changed about giving drivers a bad name yourselves). I then lost the signs, found them again, went up another segregated contraflow path with ANOTHER set of road works blocking it (I’m about 90% certain it wasn’t that I’d gone round in circles and gone up the same road twice) and another traffic light although this time by carefully placing the Brompton over the sensor I got it to change for me.

By this time I was feeling reasonably confident about the whole thing and looking forward to the rest of the ride. I was even beginning to feel that Boris’s ‘Quietways’ network wasn’t such a bad idea after all – but I hadn’t counted on the fact that I was about to leave Camden and enter Islington where the blue directional signs disappeared, along with all the nice cut throughs and contraflows and everything else and I ended up saying sod it and abandoning the back roads and just heading up Seven Sisters’ Road where you might have to play chicken with double-decker buses but at least you know where you’re going. After a very pleasant ride through Finsbury Park where there were suddenly billions of bicycles, including what looked like an accessible cycling session, it was back onto the roads and that’s where I found myself filtering through gridlocked cars on Green Lanes under the impression that I was one road over.

In all it took me about an hour and ten minutes to go eight(ish) miles, 20 minutes of which were spent looking for the right page on the A to Z.* I’m not sure I’d recommend my route to anyone and Lord knows what it would be like during rush hour, but it was certainly doable even for a scaredy on a Brompton. And that was the uphill direction.

Although I do want to know when London went all tropical. We’re in fleeces up in Scotland already and it’s shorts and t-shirt weather down here.

*Yes I do have a GPS, and your point is?


Wish Me Luck

September 6, 2013

So, I’m off to That London tomorrow for reasons which may become clear on Tuesday and the Brompton will be coming with me – returning temporarily to its ancestral home. The reason for bringing the Brompton is to help Babymother revive the bike-borne school run, as apparently this needs a Cycling Aunt, presumably of the Wodehousian variety. Obviously that means getting the Brompton from Euston to London’s wild north, which I could do perfectly sensibly by folding it up and taking it on the train, but it’s a little known fact that Bromptons are manufactured from pure gravitanium which means that although they are quite light when you pick them up, they get heavier and heavier the longer you carry them. Lugging one up the spiral staircase at Finsbury Park does not appeal, so my plan is to cycle there instead. What could possibly go wrong?

Last time I cycled between North London and the Euston Road I was 22 and immortal, and heading for a last-minute place on a Master’s course in what was then Bristol Poly, which makes me about 97 now. I was on my old student bike with all my worldly goods stuffed into an enormous backpack and I decided to take what seemed to be the easiest and most obvious route which involved going down the A1 and along the Euston Road to Paddington. At the junction between two enormous roads I saw an amber light and decided to just go for it, having forgotten that a) poorly maintained hybrid bikes piloted by unfit students laden down with backpacks don’t have much acceleration and b) London road junctions are ENORMOUS. The next thing I remember was what appeared to be four streams of traffic converging on me at once with their horns blaring while I tried to wave apologetically and pedal for my life. Needless to say, I did not ride back that way again.

Tomorrow, older and I hope wiser, I will be setting off with a game friend to see how far we get on the return journey. This time we’ll be following the railway line and avoiding big roads and if it all gets too traumatic we’ll just hop on a train instead like sensible people. If nothing else, I suppose, I shall get a blog out of it. And hopefully not a one-way ticket to A&E…

More tomorrow, if I’m spared.


Neighbours…

August 2, 2013

Our new neighbour will be moving in tomorrow, apparently – he’s not only passed the credit check but he’s also been thoroughly vetted via the local grapevine. In fact, I’m not 100% sure why the landlords bother with a credit check, given that they have been able to discover the poor chap’s life story, work record, personal habits and – I have no doubt – taste in underwear in just a couple of phone calls. (They say Salman Rushdie went into hiding not far from here during the Satanic Verses fatwa fuss, and I have to say that he can’t have chosen a worse place to be anonymous)

Sadly, among all the other things we know about him is the fact that he doesn’t have a cat, so the cat-shaped hole will go unfilled. And obviously, I definitely won’t be spending most of tomorrow just happening to be gardening out the front as he moves in


Life’s a Beach

July 7, 2013

Summer has come to Bigtown at last, along with the normal accompaniment of lobster tans and dubious fashion choices – but that’s enough about me. Yesterday was the start of our cycle campaign summer rides which start and end on the river and jolly nice it was too in the sunshine. The river in Bigtown is one of its nicest features – complete with salmon fishing, herons, kingfishers and the occasional otter – and when we first moved here we couldn’t work out why one bank was entirely given over to car parking and a tatty street filled with takeaways and empty carpet warehouses. Our puzzlement lasted until the river first properly flooded, which now happens pretty much every winter, inundating the carpark and street, takeaways and all.

The river front path is also one of the main cycle routes through the town, and very pleasant it is too, and I couldn’t help but notice that every time the river flooded it deposited a load of silt and sand onto the path. Most of it gets worn or washed away, but there’s one sort of bay with a bench and some railings, looking out over the river, which is not on the path and so doesn’t get cleared, and is now quite filled with sand. I suppose it was inevitable that – as the sun came out and summer got underway – that this has been mistaken for one of those artificial beaches – it even had a sandcastle on it when we went past. After all, Paris has them on the Seine, London on the Thames – why shouldn’t Bigtown have one too? It’s just that I’ll bet the ones in Paris and London aren’t deposited there along with a nice river full of not-very-dilute sewage.

Still, I don’t suppose the average sandpit at your local park is going to be all that much more hygienic. And they do say that children should ingest a few germs now and then to keep their immune systems on their toes…


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